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Reservation residents: P.L. 280 is inadequate

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In the early 1950s, Congress passed Public Law 83-280, which is widely known as P.L. 280. Two policy trends contributed to the passage of P.L. 280, the termination policy which envisioned assimilation of American Indians into the United States' economy and society, and the liquidation of tribal lands and assets. P.L. 280 seemed to foster termination efforts by seemingly transferring criminal jurisdiction to state and county authorities. The other main reason Congress passed P.L. 280 was for local and state authorities gain some control over public order on Indian reservations. There were reports of lawlessness on some Indian reservations, especially among California Indians, and P.L. 280 was designed to commandeer state and county courts and police to extend public safety to tribal communities.

The original act mandated inclusion of tribes from six states, including California, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Washington and Oregon. A few states and some specific tribes fought and succeeded in avoiding inclusion into P.L. 280 jurisdiction. Other states were allowed to opt in to P.L. 280, and 10 other states opted in either partially or for short periods. Today, about 23 percent of the U.S. Indian population lives under P.L. 280, and 51percent of all federally recognized tribes fall under its rules.

While P.L. 280 does not mandate the federal government to withdraw justice and police funding to P.L. 280 reservations, in practice the BIA stopped funding court and police in nearly all reservation communities that came under the act. Furthermore, while there was much confusion for years about the powers of states in Indian country under P.L. 280, courts finally clarified that Congress did not intend to pre-empt tribal judicial or policing authority. Tribes and states share concurrent authority over criminal matters, while most civil and regulatory issues remain under the sole control of tribal governments.

In practice, however, very few tribal people, police or court officials understand the implications and rights of tribal communities living under P.L. 280. Many reservation residents believe the state and county courts and police have jurisdiction over reservation communities in P.L. 280 states. Often, states and county police officers and officials do not respect or understand tribal sovereignty, or concurrent jurisdiction under P.L. 280. State and county officials often believe it is their job to extend law and order over Indian communities and serve Indian communities like any other group of state or county citizens. County police departments in many P.L. 280 states exert more authority than authorized, partly because many tribal communities are not able to challenge their assertions. While some P.L. 280 tribal communities have moved to exert concurrent jurisdiction with their own courts and police, many are not in financial positions to challenge state or county police and court authorities.

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How well have the state/county courts and policing fared as an alternative to federal/BIA courts and policing? Some soon-to-be-released research from the UCLA Native Nations Law and Policy Center surveyed reservation residents, police, and criminal justice personnel in a sample from 17 reservation communities. The findings suggest reservation residents believe P.L. 280 state/county courts and police are not providing effective services, do not understand tribal cultures, do not communicate well with tribal members, tend to overstep policing authority, and often do not respect tribal culture and authorities. Law and court officers in P.L. 280 jurisdictions, however, strongly believe they are delivering good services to tribal communities, while reservation residents strongly disagree. In contrast, reservation residents, police and criminal justice workers in non-P.L. 280 communities often agree about how well courts and policing services are delivered. Many P.L. 280 communities prefer tribal courts and police to state/county courts and police. As an experiment to provide an alternative court and policing system to federal/BIA courts and police, P.L. 280 appears not to provide enough service support and cultural understanding to meet with approval from tribal members.